How we manage God’s money is a central biblical subject of extreme importance. Hence, financial stewardship should be unapologetically addressed by Christian leaders—we who are called upon to declare “the whole counsel of God” to the people He entrusts to our care (Acts 20:27, ESV).
The sheer enormity of the Bible’s teaching on this subject screams for our attention. Why did Jesus say more about how we are to view and handle money and possessions than about any other topic—including both Heaven and Hell, and prayer and faith? Because God wants us to recognize the powerful relationship between our true spiritual condition and our attitude and actions concerning money and possessions.
In churches, stewardship should not be viewed as just one among many competing “special interests,” occasionally offered as an elective. We need much more than teaching on budgeting and financial planning. We need a Bible-based, Christ-centered theology of money and possessions that tackles critical stewardship issues pertaining to all Christians.
Despite the availability of excellent stewardship study materials, only 10 percent of churches have active programs to teach biblical financial and stewardship principles. Only 15 percent of pastors say they’ve been equipped by their denomination or seminary to teach biblical financial principles. (I encourage pastors to avail themselves of the many excellent resources, such as those available from Crown Financial Ministries, as aids to study what God’s Word says about this vital subject.)
In a society preoccupied with money and possessions, Christians will continually be exposed to wrong thinking and living. Certainly, we cannot expect the Christian community to take Scripture seriously in this vital area of stewardship unless pastors clearly teach and apply it.
Addressing Some of the Hindrances
Believers are often more open even about their sexual struggles than about battling materialism. Some churches do talk about getting out of debt. I applaud that. But you can be debt free and still be stingy and greedy. We don’t need to become smarter materialists; we need to repent of materialism and become smart stewards.
When churches address the subjects of stewardship and giving, a fundamental mistake they often make is tying the teaching to a specific project or need. We preach on giving because the offering is down or to kick off a building fund drive. The result is that people view the instruction merely as a fundraising tool, a means to the end of accomplishing our personal or institutional goals. (Indeed, often that’s just what it is.) I recommend scheduling messages on stewardship when there are no special pleas to give.
I was a pastor for 14 years. I understand that most pastors know this subject is important but feel self-conscious addressing it on their own initiative. Some may be hesitant because they aren’t being good stewards themselves so “How can I preach on something I’m not doing?” It’s also true that some in churches who imagine they “love to hear the Word” are offended when taught what the Word actually says, especially when it threatens their comfortable assumptions and lifestyles. Is the solution to avoid a defensive reaction by avoiding the subject of money? No! We are to follow the example of Paul, who told the Ephesian elders that he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). Pastors and teachers must give attention to this subject of financial stewardship to which Scripture devotes so much time.
Passing on the Basics
Back in 1988, while writing the first version of my book Money, Possessions, and Eternity, I was tempted not to use the word stewardship. It seemed an old and dying word that conjured up images of large red thermometers on church platforms, measuring how far the churches were from paying off the mortgage.
Still, I decided that stewardship was just too good a word, both biblically and historically, to abandon. I’m glad I didn’t abandon it, because in recent years the word has gained new traction, even among unbelievers who frequently talk about “stewardship of the earth.” The foundational meaning of Christian stewardship is found in its biblical roots, especially as seen in what Jesus taught in his stewardship parables.
A steward could simply be defined as “someone an owner entrusts with the management of his assets.” God expects us to use all the resources He gives us to best carry out our responsibilities in furthering His Kingdom. This includes caring for our families, our homes and businesses, our planet, and whatever else He entrusts to us.
The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) shows that we’re each entrusted by God with different financial assets, gifts, and opportunities, and we’ll be held accountable to Him for how we’ve invested them in this life. We’re to prepare for the Master’s return by enhancing the growth of His Kingdom through wisely investing His assets.
A steward’s primary goal is to be “found faithful” by his master. He proves himself faithful by wisely using the master’s resources to accomplish the tasks delegated to him (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Seen from this perspective, stewardship isn’t a narrow subcategory of the Christian life. On the contrary, stewardship is the Christian life. God’s ownership of not only “our” money and possessions but also “our” time and abilities and everything else should be central in our thinking. I believe there’s no more foundational truth for pastors to pass on to their church bodies than the truth that God owns it all, and we are His stewards. If there’s one game-changing paradigm shift, it’s in the realization—not just saying the words—that “my” money and possessions really do belong to God.
Discovering Joyful Giving
Giving is not the entirety of financial stewardship, but it is an essential and revealing part of it. We desperately need prophetic voices in our churches decrying our self-centered affluence and indifference to global needs and calling us to a joyful generosity that exalts Christ, helps the hurting, and fills our souls to overflowing.
In my book The Treasure Principle, I talk about joyful giving. My approach is to focus not on the traditional ways of motivating giving, which usually come at it as a duty. Rather, when Jesus spoke of the man who found the treasure in the field (Matthew 13:44), He emphasized how “in his joy” the man went and sold all that he had to gain the treasure. We're not supposed to feel sorry for him because it cost him everything. Rather, we're supposed to imitate the man. It cost him, yes, but it filled him with joy! The benefits vastly outweighed the costs. That is how we need to approach giving.
I think pastors should emphasize what Jesus did in Matthew 6:19-21 when He gave people the reasons for laying up treasures in heaven, not on earth. When they start reading this passage, many people think, “Jesus is against laying up treasures for ourselves.” Wrong. He commands us to lay up treasures for ourselves. He simply says, “Stop laying them up in the wrong place, and start laying them up in the right place.”
Christ’s primary argument against amassing material wealth on earth isn’t that it’s morally wrong, but simply that it’s stupid. It's a poor investment. Material things just won’t stand the test of time. Even if they escape moths and rust and thieves, they cannot escape the coming fire of God that will consume the material world (2 Peter 3:4). They will be parted from us or we will be parted from them, but the bottom line is, we can't take it with us.
But Jesus adds this incredibly exciting corollary: “No, you can't take it with you, but you can send it on ahead.” That’s the treasure principle. That's what we do when we give.
There are two different ways for pastors to appeal to their people concerning giving: give because it will bring you joy, and give because it will bring you eternal reward. In other words, don’t just do it because it’s right, but because it’s smart, and it will make you happy.
If we store up our treasures on earth, then every day that moves us closer to death moves us further from our treasures. Christ calls us to turn it around—to store up our treasures in Heaven. That way, instead of every day moving away from our treasures, we’re every day moving toward our treasures. Pastors should ask their people: Are you moving toward your treasures or away from them?
Understanding the Power of Example
Pastors should not only teach but also model a biblical pattern of stewardship. Ezra, spiritual leader of his people, “determined to study and obey the Law of the Lord and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people” (Ezra 7:10). Pastors need to be transparent about their own giving journey and what God has taught them along the way. If we fail to teach biblical stewardship and radical generosity in our churches, why should we be surprised that so few Christians appear to be practicing them?
People respond best when they have tangible examples they can follow in their leaders and their peers (Numbers 7:3; 1 Chronicles 29:9; 2 Chronicles 24:10). Fellow Christians ought to disciple each other in financial stewardship. Young believers need to see biblical lifestyle principles embodied. Those who’ve learned about the bondage of debt the hard way need to warn others. Young couples need to hear their elders tell of their joy in giving, and how God has used it in their family. (One step I took as a pastor was to assemble and distribute a booklet of financial testimonies by ten church families.)
To turn the tide of materialism in the Christian community, we desperately need bold models of kingdom-centered living. We should glorify God, not people. But we must see and hear other giving stories or our people will not learn to give. (See Should Giving Always Be Kept Secret?)
We’re to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews10:24). Shouldn’t we be asking, “How can we spur on each other’s giving? How can we help each other excel in giving?”
One way church leaders can inspire giving is by committing the church to give away a higher percentage of its own income. Does 15 percent of the church’s income go to missions? Raise it to 25 percent next year and more the next. Does 5 percent go to helping the poor? Raise it to 15 percent. For the same reason that churches wanting to discourage their people from incurring debt should not incur debt, churches wanting to encourage giving should give. Giving shouldn’t just be something churches talk about, but something they do.
Pastors shouldn’t limit instruction on giving to times when they’re raising funds for building projects. Why not preach on giving for four weeks, and then follow it not with an offering that will benefit the church but with a missions offering that will benefit others? If we want people to stretch themselves in their stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to them, the best way to model this is for the church to stretch itself in its giving.
Imagining a Revival of Strategic Living and Lavish Giving
In the Western Church, affluence has dulled our senses. Although God’s Word calls for our attention, we go right on mindlessly living out of sync with eternity’s musical score.
By God’s grace, pastors can humbly exhort the body of Christ to get serious about learning and living out God’s instructions concerning money and possessions. As they do, Christ’s cause will be furthered and His person exalted. What a joyful and God-honoring call for pastors to answer—both in their personal lifestyle choices and their words.
Paul exhorts the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians: “Excel in this grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). Then he tells the Corinthians that others will be encouraged to follow their example (2 Corinthians 9:12-14).
Individuals, families, and churches can establish beachheads of strategic lifestyle, disciplined spending, and generous, globally-minded giving. By infectious example, and joyful voluntary distribution of God’s wealth, we can claim more territory for Christ than we ever dreamed possible.
Pastors can also access resources and request free kits on the subject of stewardship (as well as on other topics Randy has written about).